The ColorRun results are in. So is it hazardous to your health?

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Is the ColorRun hazardous to your health? That is the question I set out to answer, yet unfortunately, like most things in occupational hygiene, getting the answer wasn’t that simple!

I’ve provided details on the methodology I used to collect the samples previously (and what it looked like during the run), but I need to explain the limitations in the data I collected. It’s important to know the limitations of any study before you accept the conclusion…so going against the way that popular media typically reports scientific studies and I’m going to give you some of those limitations first:

  • Firstly, only five valid samples made it out of the run. This isn’t too bad, but I had hoped for at least 6 samples so I had greater confidence in the data. As it stands now, I have highly variable results and a relatively small data set…not what I really want. But like my 7-year old says, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset!”.
  • Then there was the case where some of us suffered a direct hit from a colour throw (when the Color Run volunteers threw the dust right in our face for example…which happened twice). This resulted in small chunks of dust being left on top of the sample filter. They would not be representative of what you would breathe in (you might swallow them perhaps…but not inhale). However those “chunks” of dust dried up and actually rolled off the filter, so they weren’t analysed. The NATA-accredited lab even reported that the samples, “contained large amounts of loose particulate matter that was not all able to be weighed with the filter. Results may be biased low”. So if anything, these results are lower than they probably are…not the other way around.
  • We only sampled for 2.5 hours on average, and the exposure standard is based on an average over an 8-hour workday. For direct comparison purposes, I have assumed that the remaining 5.5-hours or so were spent in a dust-free environment, but I didn’t measure it. So again, these results are biased low (so they are conservative).
  • We are not workers and so the “exposure standard” legally doesn’t apply to us as such. But it does apply to the volunteer workers throwing the colour around and standing in a haze of dust for 2.5-hours. If our results appear shocking to you, just imagine the dose that they are getting and the impact to their health.

So let’s get down to the good stuff…the sample results. I’ve listed them in the table below in relation to the exposure standard. Remember that exposure standards represent airborne concentrations, which according to current knowledge should not cause adverse health effects nor cause undue discomfort to nearly all people. They do not represent “no-effect” levels that guarantee protection for everyone because of the variability in susceptibility between individuals. Therefore there may be a small proportion of people who may suffer mild or transitory discomfort at concentrations around, or below, the exposure standard. An even smaller number may exhibit symptoms of illness. Exposure standards determine whether a potential exists for over exposure, and associated ill health effects.

Three out of five samples exceeded the exposure standard, so I wasn’t off to a good start.…but to answer my question, “is it hazardous to your health”? I wanted to use statistics. There is uncertainty in all data, yet I wanted to see 95% of the data be below the exposure standard. I won’t bore you with the statistics, but the 95th percentile was well over the exposure standard. This was due to both the high sample results and also the high degree of variability in the data set.

Runner Result (calculated over 8-hours, assumed no exposure for remaining time after the ColorRun) Exposure Standard
Kel (ran with 2 x four year old boys) 29.0 mg/m3 4 mg/m3
Kym (ran with 1 x three year old son) 1.1 mg/m3 4 mg/m3
Mel (ran solo) 22.5 mg/m3 4 mg/m3
Kristy (ran solo) 84.2 mg/m3 4 mg/m3
Me (ran with a 7 year old daughter) 0.8 mg/m3 4 mg/m3

So what does it all mean? These results demonstrated that participating in the Newcastle ColorRun was hazardous to our health.

Some of us as you can see fared better than others. We all ran the same course in roughly the same amount of time. The amount of flour dust we inhaled though was more due to luck (or lack of) more than anything else. It’s almost impossible to not get covered in dust if you run through a colour station or go to the colour throw at the end.

Like any good occupational hygienist I need to provide you with a list of recommendations based on the data collected. So here are some of my recommendations for future participants of the Color Run:

Seriously consider your need to participate in this event. If you suffer from allergies, or allergy-type symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or if you suffer from asthma, or if you are considering taking babies or small children, then this is especially important. 

If you do participate, then take caution when going through the colour throws at each kilometer, which includes skipping them entirely (run around them up wind), or wear respiratory protection. I also recommend skipping the final colour throw at the end and the optional trip to the “Cleaning Zone”.

It’s a pity that this event is targeted at families and for kids to #runwithmum and yet the health risks associated with participating in this event are understated. I have no problem with risky activities…I just think that people should be provided with all the information so they can weigh up the risks and make an informed decision for themselves. I would recommend that the organisers of the ColorRun provide the Safety Data Sheet for the “color” on their website and to engage a competent person to provide an updated commentary for the public on its meaning. It is not fair for parents to have to individually contact the organisers, only to be told thatbreathing small amount of this material is not likely to be harmful“. You should be told the health effects of the colour, the concentrations at which you may experience those health effects, and things you can do to reduce your exposure. Most importantly you should be made aware that some people are more susceptible to developing illness related to exposure.  That would be more useful than telling me it’sgluten free“.

Spare a thought also for the volunteers who were not provided with respiratory protection and stayed within those colour stations (dust clouds) for over 2-hours. If you think our results were high, then their exposures would be far greater. Of course this is only a guess as I didn’t measure them (but it’s based on an educated observation!). I’d suggest there is a significant risk of exposure to flour dust in excess of the Workplace Exposure Standard and controls are needed to reduce that exposure. I recommend that one of those controls should be to perform a personal exposure assessment for volunteer workers.

There were a lot of people running with tiny babies and small children (including us). It’s not worth it, seriously. It’s hard for me to say this as my daughter LOVES it, but sometimes it’s just not worth the risk. We’ll just find another mum-daughter bonding activity…one that isn’t hazardous to our health.

Still not convinced? Well it’s a big call to say all of this on just 5 samples, so I’m lucky that I’m not the only Occupational Hygienist out there with a bunch of sampling pumps. The more samples we can collect to add to the data set will provide more certainty and confidence in these results. I will update these results and recommendations with additional validated data as it comes in…so stay tuned!

18 thoughts on “The ColorRun results are in. So is it hazardous to your health?

    jane said:
    May 27, 2014 at 9:06 am

    The results indicate you are safer running with a one year old boy….comments?
    I’m sure there’d be a few Mums happy to have 2hrs off to have an uninterrupted coffee whilst you babysit

    […] on from the exposure assessment we performed on runners in the Newcastle ColorRun, we are lucky enough to have some more volunteers who ran the #happiest 5k in Brisbane recently […]

    […] with the Newcastle results and performed statistical analysis of the data. As was the case with the Newcastle dataset, the 95th percentile was calculated to be well over the Exposure Standard. This again was due to […]

    […] to your health. I can say this, as we took samples of the air we breathed whilst running the Newcastle ColorRun and the Brisbane Color Run. The majority of the samples we collected exceeded the exposure […]

    cdenesha said:
    September 2, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Thank you for trying to get accurate information, and taking the time to document it.


    cdenesha said:
    September 2, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Also, I’m wondering if running with the very young induces you to dodge the worst of the dust!


    C. Holly Greene said:
    February 25, 2015 at 6:34 am

    Thank you for this. I always assumed it was GMO cornstarch crap. Next to test… the new cornstarch glitter combo! Yuk!

    teachgriff said:
    March 14, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Thank you for doing this! I have asthma and have had several critical episodes in the past four years. My doctors have changed my protocol and this year I am trying to reteach my body to be fit, including adding running and several 5Ks to my repertoire. I thought this might be a fun run with my boys, but your study– despite all of its acknowledged limitations– is enough to add to my personal hesitation. Thank you for taking the time to do this and to be transparent about your methodology.

    thisboysmama said:
    April 21, 2015 at 8:53 am

    My 7 year old did the Color Run for the first time last Saturday with me. Though we had a blast doing it and he even said it was better than the helicopter ride we’ve taken, the next couple days showed a not so “Happy” effect. I had to keep him home today from what appears to be pink eye or at least a very strong eye irritation. Yesterday he was slightly crusty in the morning, enough to have me question it and have us stay home from church and play it safe. This morning, his one eye was crusted shut completely while the other was halfway. His doctor called in a script for eye drops but was a bit concerned because of this Color Run. From a medical stand point, they do not approve of this 5K, especially now that they have the glitter and Shine element thrown in the mix. They want me to keep an eye on it to be sure it heals. If not, he will need to see an eye doctor to be sure there is no glitter in the eye. This could not only irritate the eye, but scratch it and cause more greater damage. Soooo, as much fun as we had and as much as he said it wasn’t our last, he is now rethinking it himself. We shall see!! Maybe next time, we use goggles instead of just sunglasses. Or, we just chose a different 5k! Thanks for the research!

    Christine said:
    June 10, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Thank-you for taking the time and effort to put this information together and get it out there. Colour fights seem to be becoming a “thing” here (New Zealand) and with three (out of four) asthmatics in the family, and a host of other sensitivities, my gut feeling was that they wouldn’t be a good idea. Now I don’t feel quite so paranoid!

    Jane said:
    June 15, 2015 at 11:27 am

    Thank you for this post. It’s great that you have confirmed what I was thinking – that is, that breathing in any form of dust cannot be good for our health.

    KT said:
    July 14, 2015 at 6:29 am

    Thanks for dong this research. I have several sensitivities and when I actually took the time to read the waiver I was instantly drawn aback by the “colour” element. I appreciate your disclaimers, the transperancy helps. Your work on this is very helpful.

    Dave said:
    September 10, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Seriously? How could anyone POSSIBLY think this is a good idea? Even if the exposure is within “acceptable limits,” there are bound to be some people who will either be injured or will claim injury and regardless of any “waivers” that might have been signed, even if it is “proven safe” the lawyers are going to have a field day… without coloured dust!

    cabezon said:
    February 11, 2016 at 6:43 am

    the obvious question would be did you see anyone with breathing difficulties, or check the med tent?

    Berni said:
    May 15, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I have just spent 4 days in hospital after taking part in a colour run for charity 3 weeks ago. Turns out I had a severe allergic reaction to something in the paint. Started with a rash which turned to big red blisters that oozed for weeks. Then my face swelled up and it looked like I had been in a fire. Worst thing I’ve ever experienced and I’m only just starting to heal now after being on a drip and dosed up on lots of medication. Such a shame as the colour run was such good fun. I won’t ever be able to do it again. I had no idea that this would happen to me.

    Denise Gore said:
    May 12, 2018 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for sharing this. Our daughter is in college and felt fine, no illnesses and super healthy. She did a color run at her University and the Student Activity Council volunteers were responsible for the colors being thrown.. whether due to exuberance, youth, inexperience or poor supervision, the result was that they were throwing the Colors directly into the faces of the runners. Our daughter ended up with it in her nose, her mouth, her ears, just covered from head to toe. She said she felt like she was choking on it. Two days after the run, she started feeling ill and thought she had caught a bad cold. 4 days after run she stopped eating food because her throat hurt so badly. 6 days after the run she asked us to bring her medicine at school and said that she was really sick. Seventh day after the run we picked her up from school and took her to Urgent Care who said she was hours away from being hospitalized. She hadn’t been able to eat for 4 days, could only take a sip of water at a time, could barely open her mouth, had lost her voice completely, was running a fever and had elevated blood pressure. She was diagnosed with acute bacterial pharyngitis, acute bacterial laryngitis, acute maxillary sinusitis, an ear infection and thrush. Her lymph nodes in her neck were so enlarged that she could not turn her head. After antibiotic injection, plus 10 days on a very strong antibiotic/antifungals/sinus meds she was seen back at doctor and still has tonsils the size of golf balls and now more antibiotics but they’re saying she may have to have her tonsils removed. She looked back through her calendar and she felt 100% fine until that color run. She said that there are a lot of kids that got it thrown in their faces and we’re choking on the paint. I wish she had never participated.

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